What is a Motif?


It is sometimes difficult to understand the difference between the terms ‘motif’, ‘topic’ and ‘theme’. These terms are closely linked to each other, which is partly what causes the confusion, and, to make matters worse, they are often used differently by different teachers. So these pages are intended to offer some simple definitions of the three terms to make sure that you use them correctly when writing your World Lit essays. You should start with the one on motifs, then move on to topics before finishing up with themes.



What is a motif?

This is the simplest one to define. A motif is a real concrete element of the text that actually appears written down on the page. Motifs are repeated again and again throughout a text and through this repetition they begin to symbolise bigger ideas. Remember this idea of bigger ideas because it is important when understanding the relationship between motifs, topics and themes.


What can be a motif?

Basically anything that’s repeated in a text. Most often, however, motifs are repeated images, actions, phrases or objects.


Some examples?

Bernarda’s Rod in The House of Bernada Alba is a great example of a motif. It is a concrete real object that appears a number of times in the text. On it’s own the literal, obvious or basic meaning or Bernarda’s Rod is simply that it is the walking stick that Bernarda uses to support herself. However, through repetition and the way that Lorca makes Bernarda use it, the rod comes to symbolise the bigger ideas of repression and state control. In some ways it might also be symbolic of the scepter (basically a heavy golden stick) that kings or queens, certainly in England, have.


The use of windows and doors in The House of Bernarda Alba are another good example of an object that is being used as motif. The literal, obvious or basic meaning of a window or door is, simply, the thing that you walk through or look through. If they appeared only once or twice in the text they wouldn’t really be that important but because Lorca repeatedly refers to them so often and so obviously they come to symbolise the bigger ideas of a longing for freedom and, by contrast, the restrictions and lack of freedom that the girls experience.


The repetition of ‘The One’ in the Matrix films is a good example of how a phrase can be used as a motif. By itself ‘the one’ is nothing special. However, because it is repeated so many times in the film we begin to think of it in capitals as ‘The One’ and the phrase comes to suggest Neo’s uniqueness and almost saviour-like or Christ-like nature. Furthermore, the repeated use of bullet time when filming the fight sequences in which everything slows down and Neo is able to dodge bullets or punches is a good example of an action being used as a motif. Again this motif re-emphasises the fact that Neo is unique and capable of things that normal mortals are not.